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Get an early start.

Byline: Rebecca Woolington The Register-Guard

Lillie Leyba, her cream blond locks blowing about, rushed around a miniature bike path that encircles a play structure in a yellow tricycle. The 3-year-old was taking a recess during her 31/2-hour class at Head Start of Lane County in Springfield.

Lillie says she enjoys playing with puzzles and outside on the swings with her classmates.

"They're all my friends - boys, too," she said.

And that's how Head Start wants it. Soon even smaller tykes will be able to use the social skill-building service.

Head Start of Lane County, the local chapter of the national organization, has received $1.3 million in federal stimulus money across the span of two years to begin an Early Head Start program for Eugene and Springfield, serving pregnant women and women with infants or young children up to age 3. The existing Head Start program serves 1,023 children ages 3 to 5 years old by focusing on healthy childhood development and providing children with educational, nutritional and physical and mental health services.

"We really work with parents and talk about and identify what their needs are," said Annie Soto, executive director of Head Start for 15 years. "We talk about activities - what they should read and sing to their child, nutrition, medical services - all things that can be very confusing for parents who don't have support. The strength of the program is that it's not just about children: It's about family as well."

Head Start programs serve children and offer social services to families who live below the poverty line and are funded by a blend of state and federal dollars. Statewide and nationwide Head Start programs received $5.2 million and $2.1 billion, respectively, from federal stimulus funds for a two-year period.

The Early Head Start program will begin Feb. 16 and initially serve 48 children, their families and pregnant women.

Soto said Head Start will be able to begin the new program that soon in part because of its strong relationships with other social service agencies in the community.

"And we're all a little hyper," Soto added.

It also helped that having an Early Head Start program has been part of the agency's strategic plan since 2002, Soto said.

The child care facility, Soto said, will have a ratio of four children per staff member, and the program carries an annual cost of about $13,000 per child.

The program will be located at four Eugene sites: Fairfield Elementary School, Willamette Family Treatment, Parkside Child Care Center and Relief Nursery.

Although the locations are all based in Eugene, Soto said Springfield residents also are urged to apply.

The child care atmospheres, Soto said, will include big blocks, soft furniture, plenty of room to crawl and play, and staff members dedicated to the social and emotional development in children.

The young participants will be "learning to play with their peers," she said. "It broadens their scope."

One of the best aspects of the new program, Soto said, is that families can begin receiving the educational and supportive services they need early on, which can prevent the onset of behavioral problems later on. Most of the children enrolled in the Head Start program have some type of behavioral issues, she said.

In addition to the child care settings, Early Head Start will include home visits for a limited number of applicants. Staff members will visit homes at least twice a month, and a socialization time for parents and children to connect with other parents and children will be scheduled.

"To be able to provide services at birth - or before birth - will just be wonderful," she said. "We can help develop a positive relationship between a baby and a mom."

As soon as women become pregnant, they can be eligible for the service, Soto said.

Helping women key to application

A large part of Head Start's application for stimulus funding focused on the program's goal of helping women with prenatal and postpartum depression, said Val Haynes, Head Start's health and nutrition consultant.

"It's so exciting to be able to work so closely with pregnant women who are at risk for various reasons," she said. "We can help ensure that their pregnancy goes well."

Head Start has been striving for the program because Lane County lacks services for the targeted age group.

Haynes said part of the program's goal is to decrease infant mortality in the county, which at 9.5 per 1,000 live births is higher than both the state (7.9) and nation (9.3), according to county data.

In its grant letter for stimulus dollars, Head Start asked for enough funding to provide services for 80 children or pregnant women.

Although Soto had hoped to serve more families, she said she's grateful to just start the program.

One of the toughest parts of helping families in need, she said, is having to decide which families have the greatest need. Soto said Head Start tries to target families who have more than just financial needs, such as disabilities or domestic violence problems.

The Head Start program has more than 350 families on its waiting list, she said.

It's no wonder the program is in high demand, Soto said, considering the stakes involved. "The future of the community rests in the hands of what we're doing with these young children," she said.

EARLY HEAD START PROGRAMS AND LOCATIONS

Fairfield Elementary School will serve as headquarters of the "Home Base" program, where 16 pregnant women or women with infant to 3-year-old children will receive home visits from a Head Start staff member twice a month. Fairfield will have a classroom child care service for children who will receive home visits.

Willamette Family Treatment and Parkside Child Care Center each will provide full-day childcare for four infants. Relief Nursery will provide full-day and part-day service for eight "wobblers" - children between the ages of 12 to 15 months who can't quite walk but whose movements are more sophisticated than a crawl - and toddlers.

People interested in applying for Early Head Start can call the central office at 747-2425.
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Title Annotation:City/Region
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Dec 7, 2009
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